Last day in Irkutsk = a trip to Listvaynka. “Most” people go directly there instead of staying in Irkutsk because it is by the lake. So I imagined this place to be a nice little city - somewhat similar to the island. What I found was a sketchy fishing town with an aquarium that has seals playing the saxaphone.
Directions to the town were easy - “Just go to the bus station and get on the bus that says Listvaynka”. Done, no problem, I head off to the bus station. One thing to remember for next time - bus stations are sketchy (no matter where you are). Turns out Irkutsk has three different stations to buy tickets. None of them sold tickets for Listvaynka. After 30 minutes of harassing the ticket ladies, I was about to throw in the towel but pride prevailed and I asked one of the minibus hustlers where I could find a bus - “around the corner” was said with hand gestures and huffing. And he was right. Silly me for thinking a legitimate greyhound-type bus went there. 3 minivans were lined up with the signs I’d been looking for. A nice old man with silver teeth showed me to the next bus and I was off.
Listvaynka = souvenir market, BBQs, seals playing musical instruments and fishing.
I left for the train station in the middle of a thunderstorm which added to the trepidation of what train 362 would deliver (I hadn’t eaten dinner just in case). Good news on the reader board! The train was starting in Irkutsk (= clean and un-smelly). As everyone piled onto the train, more and more English was being spoken. My carriage was ALL foreigners. Which I later discovered why.
There were the Dutch couple (in my cabin), the American couple, some guys from London, two ladies from Malaysia, and the Scottish brothers who sounded like Sean Connery (and were his age too). We all got to talking - the usual, where have you been? Where did you start?, etc. the conversation then steered to the fact that we weren’t covering a lot of ground over the 30+ hours on the train, so why the long time? Two words: border crossing.
We pull into the Russian border station missing half of our train. Turns out the other carriages stayed at the previous stops we made. The train ladies tell us “No bathroom. 3 hours passport control.” It’s a nice day so we all get off the train and wait. 3 hours go by and nothing has happened except we’ve all got a tan and have found beer. Oh and our engine has left us. Leaving our one single train carriage on the track in the middle of station - we look like hostages. On the fourth hour the train ladies round us up and 2 janitor looking guys come on board looking for our departure cards - just looking, no taking. Then a little while later 5 border agents board the train: two checking passports, two collecting the passports into leather briefcases and one security guard. We are then left with no passports and no indication of what next. Time for more tanning and beer. A herd of rogue goats tear through the station - stopping to have their photo taken of course. Cows then pass through the station. It was starting to look like we’d be spending the night when we get rounded back onto the train, get our passports back and have our entire cabin taken apart - ceiling and all. Then we get an engine and we are on our way - 6 hours later.
The Russian borderline is tall chain-link fence, with barbed wire and looks electrically charged. Across the dirt road, the Mongolian borderline is a wooden fence with a wooden latch securing the door.
Yay we all made it to Mongolia! Kids are waving, people are happy, our train carriage is happy (and a little drunk?).
Our single carriage pulls into the Mongolian border crossing. 2.5 hours. Passport control. This isn’t fun anymore. Hangovers have kicked in, mosquitoes have arrived and we’ve been without a bathroom for the entire border crossing experience. To say that everyone is a little touchy is an understatement. But the train ladies are having a good ole time. They’ve smuggled some stuff over the border, have put on their civilian clothes and dark sunglasses and are now acting as money exchange agents - “You need Mongolian money? I take your Rubbles. Give you good rate.”
We finally get our passports back, get an engine (we had been left stranded by our Russian engine) and are back on the road - arriving in Ulan-Bator at 6 am. It’s hot and sunny (just wanted to rub it in a little) and the city is surrounded by large grassy hills.
Today I will be taking a course on proper etiquette/manners for traveling with a nomad family and then it’s off on a camel tomorrow morning for four days. Apparently the main dish in Mongolia is lamb or goat, and the alcohol of choice is fermented milk (“the cloudy stuff is only 10%, but the clear stuff is 40%”). Awesome.